Russia/Africa: Wagner, an investigation into Putin’s mercenaries

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: From Russia to Africa: The trail of Wagner

By Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Wednesday, 28 July 2021 21:55, updated on Thursday, 29 July 2021 14:49

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with President of Central African Republic Faustin Archange Touadera during a meeting on the sidelines of the Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia October 23, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin via REUTERS

Wagner, the unofficial private security company linked to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is becoming increasingly active in the continent. Its story involves secret dealings, cash and local intelligence networks, is worthy of a spy novel. In the first of our two-part investigation, we delve into its tightly woven network.

This is part 1 of a 2-part investigation series

The atmosphere was festive once again at La Brasserie Kiss. On the evening of 20 April, about 100m from the ‘zero kilometre point’ in the heart of Bangui, a few vehicles were still parked in front of the three-storey cabaret, one of the city’s best establishments. The lights from the building illuminated the night. Outside, Avenue du Colonel Conus was deserted. It was nearly 8pm, which meant that the curfew would soon come into force. But a few customers, regulars, had no intention of leaving.

Colonel Vassili often paid little attention to the traffic ban. At the wheel of his armoured pick-up, this Russian officer with a youthful face and blonde hair felt at home in the capital. He had been invited to the brasserie that night and was determined to enjoy himself. Good-natured and well-built, this lover of alcoholic pleasures had dressed himself in civilian clothes for the occasion.

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With a glass of wine in hand, he toasted several times to the memory of Idriss Déby Itno, who had died two days earlier and whose death he seemed to be happy about. But some revelers grimaced. Even though the marshal had not been among their favourites, it seemed somewhat disrespectful to celebrate his death.

Despite the fact that the colonel was living in the moment and enjoying the company of his two guests, he was still on duty, and his phone reminded him of this, twice. The first person who contacted him that night was CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra: he was looking for information.

Touadéra wanted to know how much progress the Russian auxiliary troops had made with regards to the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement (CPC), an alliance of armed groups coordinated by François Bozizé. Vassili, whose full name is not widely known, was the right man for the job, as he is one of the leaders of the mercenaries affiliated to the security company Wagner, of which he is a member of staff.

The colonel, who was used to talking to the president, quickly reassured him that his men had the upper hand. The CAR army, which was leaving the frontline to its Russian allies, would soon be able to advance and officially occupy the conquered positions. Vassili then hung up and returned to drinking his glass of wine. The festivities continued, past curfew. Vassili had so much influence that the cabaret was allowed to break the rules. That is the kind of privilege that comes with power.

But who is this man who is a stranger to almost all the people in Bangui?

“He has direct and regular contact with the president and is a high-ranking member of Wagner’s staff within the CAR,” says one of our sources. So is he the ‘boss’ of Wagner’s branch in the CAR? Officially, the private military company – whose status is illegal in Russia – does not operate in the CAR, so there is no way to confirm Vassili’s identity. However, in reality, the Wagner Group started conquering Bangui three years ago. And the reason why the company is so powerful today is because it has placed its men within all circles of power.

Kalashnikovs, Makarovs and rocket launchers

Screenshot of Russian soldiers in the Syrian desert. RamiroWTF/YouTube

How did Wagner become omnipresent?

In September 2017, France said it would deliver 1,500 Kalashnikovs – that its navy had confiscated off the coast of Somalia one and a half years earlier – to the Central African Armed Forces. However, as the CAR was under a UN arms embargo, this decision had to be approved by the UN Security Council. Moscow, which had veto power, opposed the project.

To break the deadlock, Paris discreetly advised Touadéra to plead his case with the Russian giant. In October, the Central African president met with foreign affairs minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi. The Kremlin then agreed to lift its veto and took advantage of this opportunity to bring up the thorny Central African issue.

Lavrov proposed an agreement that involved more than just a ‘simple’ lifting of the veto. Russia agreed to put all its weight behind lifting the embargo, which Bangui had long hoped would be eased. In exchange, Russia expected a return on investment. One of the agreement’s clauses, which was not made public at the time, was that either a Russian mining company be created in the CAR or that Russians be allowed to operate an airfield in the Ouadda region.

In January 2018, an Ilyushin 76 cargo plane made its first arms delivery. This was followed by 6,200 Kalashnikovs, 900 Makarov automatic pistols, 270 rocket launchers and 20 anti-aircraft guns, which were delivered in less than two months.

Above all, the first Russian ‘advisors’ landed on Central African soil and at least two companies obtained their first contracts. These were Lobaye Invest, which was created in October 2017, and its subsidiary Sewa Security Services, responsible for ensuring its security. In June and July 2018, Léopold Mboli Fatran, the minister of mines, granted Lobaye Invest mining exploration permits in the regions of Yawa and Pama. Other permits were granted afterwards for the regions of N’Délé, Bria, Birao and Alindao.

What is the connection between Lobaye Invest and the Wagner group? Yevgeny Khodotov, the company’s managing director – who is discrete and does not appear in the news very often in Bangui – quickly attracts attention.

Born in 1964, the former St Petersburg police officer works in the shadows in close collaboration with his compatriot Valery Zakharov, a former Russian military intelligence officer (GRU) who has been advising President Touadéra since June 2018. Khodotov also heads the company M-Finans, which operates on behalf of Concord, a Russian company considered to be a hub for the activities of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a well-known oligarch. Putin, who knows Prigozhin well, promoted his rise within the country’s restaurant sector in the 1990s by making him the Kremlin and defence sector’s supplier.

This former fast-food boss, who made his fortune from selling hot dogs after the fall of the USSR, was convicted of fraud and incitement to prostitution in 1981 but released nine years later. Putin’s chef is also said to have obtained lucrative contracts – worth billions of dollars – from the Russian ministry of defence.

As such, Prigozhin is considered the main financier of Wagner, a group which was created in 2013 and 2014 and is often attributed to Dmitri Outkin – his relative who was a neo-Nazi sympathiser as well as a former lieutenant colonel of both the special forces and the GRU.

“As early as 2018, we saw the ‘advisors’ and companies controlled by Prigozhin arrive,” says a Bangui-based diplomat. In France, at the Quai d’Orsay, several memos were written about the rise of Russian influence. There was a lot of worry after it was discovered that Zakharov was summoning ministers and presenting himself as the main advisor to the president, who had surrounded himself with guards recruited by Sewa Security Services.

But the Paris hierarchy, confident about its historical relationship with the CAR, chose to downplay the situation. Meanwhile, Prigozhin’s men, many of whom were close to him and advised by the GRU (Wagner’s first training camp in Russia that was located near Krasnodar and was a GRU base), played their part to perfection.

Zakharov and his men, who exploited anti-French sentiment and actively supported propaganda hostile to Paris, positioned themselves with the sole objective of obtaining financial spin-offs for companies linked to Wagner. “They had conquered Bangui. But they still didn’t know how they would use their influence over Touadéra and, above all, profit from the Central African subsoil, at a time when the country was still being mainly controlled by armed groups,” says a diplomatic source.

They quickly found a solution: to exert their influence on Sudan, one of the CAR’s neighbours. In Khartoum, Russia and Wagner’s influence steadily grew during the last few years of Omar al-Bashir’s rule. This was met with great hostility from the US, which had supported the southern Sudanese neighbour since its independence. As a result, Wagner and Prigozhin decided to use the Sudanese bridgehead to move into the CAR.

Several mining concessions

A summit meeting, at the helm of which was Jamal Aldin Omar, took place in August 2018 in the directorate of military intelligence building. For several months, Omar’s men had been in contact with leaders of the Central African armed group, including Noureddine Adam and Ali Darassa.

Discrete helicopter trips were made between the Sudanese capital and the Central African bush. Omar explained to those in attendance that Khartoum was ready to host a dialogue between the Bangui government and the rebels fighting Touadéra. Most importantly, he said Morocco – which was considered a strong ally – was supporting him.

Since 2013, Russia has undeniably supported Khartoum. Mercenaries were quickly spotted, especially during moments when demonstrators were being repressed, and up to 300 men were employed by a company called M-Finance, which entered into a contract with the Russian authorities to use military aircraft and bring them to Sudan. Wagner is behind these mercenaries and operates through three companies: M-Finance, M-Invest and Meroe Gold, the latter of which holds several mining concessions in the country. M-Invest, as is the case with M-Finans in the CAR, is connected to Concord, via Megalite, another company in Prigozhin’s network.

“The systems are the same in the CAR and Sudan, as local companies are linked to other companies connected to Concord and Prigozhin,” says a security source. Since Khodotov was considered to be Wagner’s man in Bangui, then it was another man that was acting underhandedly in Khartoum, at the head of M-Invest and Meroe Gold. That man was Mikhaïl Potepkin. The local right-hand man of the St. Petersburg oligarch has in the past been linked to propaganda operations sanctioned by the US authorities, and one of his alleged accomplices, Anna Bogacheva, is still wanted by the FBI. Potepkin is also a former employee of the Internet Research Agency and was a member of the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, both of which are linked to Prigozhin.

In August 2018, at the top-secret Sudanese military intelligence headquarters, Potepkin was present. But he was not alone in the air-conditioned meeting room that Omar had provided, as Prigozhin was also there, surrounded by 15 or so uniformed bodyguards. In fact, 60-year-old Prigozhin knows Khartoum quite well, as he regularly travels there by private jet, accompanied by two other aircraft: one for his men and the other for his luggage.

On the fateful day, his right-hand man Outkin was at his side, as was Zakharov – the man from Bangui – who was himself accompanied by the young Dmitry Sytyi, who works both as an interpreter and leads the propaganda operations on Central African soil. Also present were most of the leaders of the CAR’s armed groups, who responded to Khartoum’s invitation that was sent on behalf of Wagner’s men. Darassa was present, as were Abdoulaye Hissène, Mahamat al-Khatim, Adam and Maxime Mokom.

According to several sources, they all received the equivalent of several tens of thousands of euros in cash. Though seated for two hours in comfortable armchairs around the large meeting table, the ‘rebels’ did not speak much. Prigozhin, whose men had prepared for the summit with Sudanese intelligence, monopolised the floor. “The government brought us to Bangui to fight you,” he said at the outset. Then the oligarch got to the heart of the matter: “But we know it will be difficult. We have to find a solution.”

“Prigozhin introduced his men and then pleaded for an agreement to be reached between the groups and the Central African government,” a participant told us. “Then he explained his idea of a win-win partnership. He wanted to sponsor agreements and share resources, prefecture by prefecture. A share for Bangui, a share for the group that controls the region and a final share for Wagner,” our source said. A round table discussion was then held, during which everyone voted in favour of holding a dialogue in Khartoum. The participants remained cautious but agreed to meet again a month later, at the end of September, at the same premises.

“The second meeting endorsed the dialogue in Khartoum. Everyone clarified what they wanted from it and then we parted ways,” said our participant. On 5 February 2019, Prigozhin gathered the protagonists for the last time at his hotel in the Sudanese capital, as he was determined to obtain a peace agreement and succeed where the UN had so far failed.

In addition to the leaders of the armed groups, Firmin Ngrébada (CAR’s prime minister) and Marie-Noëlle Koyara (the defence minister) were on board. After final negotiations, the so-called ‘Khartoum agreement’ was signed that same day, under the auspices of the African Union (AU) and its commissioner for peace and security, Smaïl Chergui. It was then signed by President Touadéra at the Palais de la Renaissance in Bangui the next day.

Wagner had achieved a diplomatic victory.

Zakharov and Sytyi, a powerful duo

“After the Khartoum agreement, Russia and Wagner’s hold on Bangui became even stronger. They strengthened their relationship with Touadéra and Ngrébada, and further spread the message that they had succeeded where others had failed,” says one diplomat.

At the helm was Zakharov, the presidency’s ubiquitous former intelligence officer, and his younger brother Sytyi, the two men that Prigozhin had presented as ‘Wagner’s representatives in Bangui’. The former went so far as to speak on behalf of the Central African government on social media. The second – who speaks English, French, Spanish and Russian – was one of the main architects of anti-French communication operations.

Sytyi, a 32-year-old graduate in marketing from a Parisian business school and management from the University of Catalonia, worked with the information and communication office, a discreet unit attached to the presidency. Headed until recently by one of Touadéra’s close colleagues, the current interior minister Michel Nicaise Nassin, the ‘Office’ responsible for setting up websites with favourable content about the Russian-Central African alliance. According to a document that we managed to obtain, it produces publications that present ‘certain politicians as enemies of the people’, ‘denounce the Minusca’s double game’ and above all, insist on ‘the Faca and Russian forces’ victory’.

“In 2017 and 2018, Wagner set up his relays in the CAR. In 2019, after the agreement, it went to another dimension,” says a Central African politician. “Lobaye’s mining activities expanded and the number of mercenaries increased, while Wagner’s influence on the government grew,” says a former minister, who adds “and that was before the last presidential election and the creation of the CPC.” If the signing of the February 2019 agreements was a victory for Prigozhin and his men, then the same armed groups that signed the agreements will provide him with the opportunity to develop his strategy further.

‘The CPC has opened a boulevard for them’

By mid-December 2020, tension had been rising for several weeks in Bangui, as the opposition was protesting against the upcoming election. However, President Touadéra was determined that the first round, which was scheduled for 27 December, would go ahead as planned. Furthermore, the constitutional court had decided that Bozizé could not run as a presidential candidate.

Although he decided – in the end – to support Anicet-Georges Dologuélé, the former president discreetly made contact with some of the armed groups that had signed the Khartoum agreement and who were planning to take up arms again to prevent the elections from taking place.

The government has almost no control over Wagner’s decisions. It gives them a carte blanche.

On 17 December, six of them – led by Abass Sidiki, Ali Darassa, Mahamat al-Khatim, Adam, Maxime Mokom and Dieudonné Ndamaté – announced the creation of the CPC. Two days later, they stated that they would be marching onto Bangui. On 27 December, Bozizé declared his support for the rebels and asked his supporters not to vote, thereby betraying his commitment to Dologuélé in the process. “This was the tipping point,” says a diplomat. “The international community found itself obliged to support Touadéra in the defence of Bangui. But who could defend the capital?”

“The CPC offensive has opened up a boulevard for Wagner,” says a security source. The UN mission in the CAR (Minusca) was caught in a trap. “We were forced to fight alongside the mercenaries in some areas, but we had to defend the population,” says a peacekeeper.

In December, January and February, Sewa Security Services’ men fought sporadically against the CPC rebels, who – after having hoped for a while to take over Bangui – decided to withdraw and take advantage of the depth of the territory. On 11 February, Zakharov, the presidency’s real spokesman, declared that the government was on its way to “controlling the whole territory.”

From then on, Russia was entirely in control. From the Berengo camp, where it had been based since April 2018, Wagner’s staff made decisions before communicating them to the Bangui-based presidency and the ministry of defence, where Moscow had officially sent General Oleg Polguev to act as an advisor, but purely as a façade.

Wagner and Sewa Security Services’ men were stationed at Emperor Bokassa’s former palace compound. Part of the premises was set up to train Central African soldiers and the two-kilometre long airfield runway was rehabilitated. But the heart of the camp, which housed the headquarters, was off limits to locals. And the area around the perimeter, which was officially under the control of the ministry of defence, was guarded day and night by hooded white men.

Jean Serge Bokassa, the former emperor’s own son, was repeatedly denied access to his father’s mausoleum and was only able to visit it twice after Wagner’s arrival, as its leaders imposed conditions on him, such as insisting on being present and giving a speech at the authorised tribute ceremonies.

Throughout the course of 2019, at which point they had occupied the place for a year, Prigozhin’s men even ended up giving him a huge painting, which was three metres high and six metres long, and depicted his father’s mausoleum, newly embellished with a pole bearing the Russian and Central African flags. This offering ‘bordered on insult’ and the person concerned had difficulty accepting it.

Promising gold mine

Bokassa was once again refused access to the mausoleum on 3 November 2020, when he had wanted to pay an annual tribute to his father. The politician had obtained permission to visit the site a few days earlier from Koyara. It was a waste of time though, as the minister’s goodwill had no effect on the Russian hierarchy. The tribute ceremony was held outside Berengo, a few kilometres away.

“The government has almost no control over Wagner’s decisions. It gives them a carte blanche,” says one politician. “The Russians reconquer localities and then call the Faca to come and occupy the land,” said another source close to Minusca.

How strong are Wagner and the Sewa Security Services? “It is completely unclear,” said the UN. On 18 April, Moscow acknowledged that it had deployed “532 instructors” in the CAR, but several well-informed sources estimate that the figure was closer to 2,000 men, of which a little less than 1,000 may have been stationed in Berengo and some of whom – the ones who speak Arabic – are from Syria and Libya.

Discreet, masked and sometimes seen in certain shops in Bangui getting supplies with their transport trucks, Wagner promised them, in addition to their salary, that it would pay 50,000 roubles (about €570) to the person of their choice if they died at the frontline.

“From Berengo, they can move troops, weapons or mining equipment as they wish,” says a UN expert. Several airfields in N’Délé, Birao and Ouadda were rehabilitated. In Ouadda, Lobaye Invest was now working with the armed group leader Zakaria Damane, who had a lot of influence in the region. It was also present in some parts of Yawa in Lobaye and Ndassima in Ouaka, where the country’s most promising gold mine is located – and where Midas Resources, another company linked to Russian interests, was operating. 17 helicopters were also reportedly stationed at the Roux camp in Bangui, not including the Antonov jumbo jets that land at Bangui’s Mpoko airport.

“We have seen constant arm deliveries since December. The quantities are very large,” says an expert. “Often they come from Port Sudan, where Wagner is based. Then they land and are unloaded at night in Bangui, or perhaps they go as far as Berengo or other bases, such as Am Fadok, on the Sudanese-Central African border. Even in Mpoko, controls are ineffective, and much of it goes under the UN radar and is not declared,” says a security source.

On 23, 24 and 25 January 2021, two Sudanese-registered Antonov aircraft operated by the Sudanese Air Force flew to Mpoko airport, delivering “arms, ammunition and military equipment”, according to the latest report by the UN panel of experts, which was submitted to the Security Council on 29 June. The report concludes that “deliveries have continued at a pace not seen since the arms embargo was imposed in 2013.”

Killings of journalists and civilians

Prigozhin’s men, who were already suspected of having ordered the murder of three Russian journalists who had come to the CAR to investigate their activities in July 2018, had been under constant pressure from the international community for several months.

The UN says it has “received numerous reports about Russian instructors who have been indiscriminately killing unarmed civilians”, particularly in the mining regions.

  • 21 February, an unarmed civilian was shot dead in Ippy;
  • 13 January, two disabled people were shot dead near Paoua and Grimari;
  • 8 March, two Fulani civilians were killed in Gotchélé because they were believed to be rebels.

Moscow was recently asked by the Security Council to explain its relationship with private security companies and the abuses that have taken place in the CAR. Even though Moscow did not do so and denied having any links with them, the pressure is still mounting.

“The Russians risk being trapped. Even though the number of accusations [are] increasing, the armed groups have in fact only retreated and retained their capacity to inflict harm. How long will Wagner continue to fight?” one diplomat asks. A security source says: “Putin wanted to score points against Emmanuel Macron in 2017 and 2018, because he had just been elected. In addition, the subsoil attracted the covetousness of certain actors. Wagner has been able to play both sides, meanwhile the Kremlin can deny having any connection to it. Wagner has advanced and occupied urban centres. But for how long? The armed groups have retreated, but they know that time is on their side.”

Bamako’s turn?

A demonstration against French presence in Mali, 22 September 2020. Anadolu Agency/AFP

For several weeks, Wagner’s men have been keeping a lower profile in Bangui. Zakharov has suspended his social media accounts and does not visit the Central African capital as often as he did before.

Moscow asked Wagner to be more discreet, so as not to further heighten the tension between France and the Security Council.

The president’s close security team is now mostly made up of Central Africans, whereas in recent years, it was dominated by Russians. Finally, under pressure from France, there was a reshuffle at the end of June which put an end to prime minister Ngrébada’s term in office, as he was considered to be too close to Moscow.

Koyara also left his position as minister of defence. “Moscow asked Wagner to be more discreet, so as not to further heighten the tension between France and the Security Council,” says a diplomat based in Bangui.

Is Prigozhin already looking to other horizons? In any case, Wagner’s emissaries were spotted at the end of 2019 in Bamako, where they hoped to take advantage of anti-French sentiment to offer the same services they had provided in the CAR. “They speak out against neo-colonialism and offer their help as a partner and not as a tutelary power. This resonates with the former colonies,” says a Sahelian diplomat.

Ever since Assimi Goïta (now president of the transition government) took over power in Mali, many observers have noted that several of his colleagues – including Malick Diaw (president of the Conseil National de Transition) and Sadio Camara (minister of defence), as well as Goïta – were trained in Russia.

According to Malian military sources, Diaw and Camara were also trained in Moscow from January to August 2020, just a few days before the coup that propelled them to power. Finally, several pro-Russian and anti-French demonstrations were also organised, both in Bamako and Sikasso. “We know how Wagner weaves its web and we are paying attention,” said a source in French intelligence.

Several French arms companies have nevertheless expressed concern about the number of Russian intermediary contacts that Goïta’s entourage has made. “France has lost influence in the CAR ever since Operation Sangaris ended. The two countries are very different, so it is highly unlikely that the same scenario will take place in Mali once Barkhane officially ends,” our analyst says. However, the risk was deemed serious enough for French military intelligence to make ‘Russian penetration’ a priority, not only in Mali but also the entire Sahel zone.

Paris is even more concerned about neighbouring Chad. “Wagner is very well established in Libya, where it is close to Khalifa Haftar, and has initiated contact with several Chadian rebels,” says a security source. During the attack that led to Itno’s death in April, the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) was even partially equipped with weapons of Russian origin. Macron and Mahamat Idriss Déby even discussed this rapprochement between Chadian rebels and Russian mercenaries at the beginning of July at the Élysée Palace.

According to N’Djamena, Déby has been all the more vigilant since five of the country’s soldiers were kidnapped and then executed in Chad on 30 May, not far from the border with the CAR, in clashes with Central African soldiers and Russian auxiliaries.

Although Bangui claims to have pursued these Central African rebels into Chadian territory, the latter’s authorities have described the incidents as ‘war crimes’ and pointed an accusing finger at Wagner’s mercenaries. A joint investigation is underway, but the tension has not subsided.

Now that Wagner has successfully conquered Khartoum and Bangui, will it succeed in fulfilling its ambitions and those of the Kremlin further west on the continent? The discreet African symphony that Putin and his ally Prigozhin have been composing, from Libya to Mozambique via Sudan and the CAR, seems to be – in any case – still unfinished.

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